The Burdensome Legacy of Child Services Chief John Mattingly

| July 27, 2011 2:27 PM

John Mattingly resigned from his position as commissioner of the Administration of Child Services on Tuesday. His tenure was marked considerable controversy. Flickr/sometimesdee.

Administration for Child Services Commissioner John Mattingly announced on Tuesday that he is resigning after seven years of service. On Wednesday, Mayor Michael Bloomberg appointed his replacement, Family Court Judge Ronald E. Richter.

During his tenure, Mattingly hired hundreds of employees to allow caseworkers more time with each child under their charge, which he has been lauded for, the New York Times reported.

However, his time at Child Services was punctuated by the deaths of 7-year-old Nixzmary Brown in 2006 and 4-year-old Marchella Brett-Pierce in 2010. Their cases exposed what many critics claim were significant flaws in the ACS system, and resulted in increased oversight of the administration.

Some critics charge that those cases affected Mattingly’s outlook so much that he became an obstacle to child welfare reform, and his successor will have to bear the weight of many of his choices.

Leaving for his family: Mattingly told his staff, ”I reached this difficult decision after much careful thought, taking into consideration my desire to continue contributing to the important work of child welfare, while also wanting to spend time with my family,” reported the New York Times. Those close to the Mattingly have indicated that his wife might be sick.

Praise for the departing commissioner: When Mattingly was appointed by Bloomberg in 2004, the child welfare industry largely saw him as an excellent hire, and child welfare leaders continue to praise him for deeply caring about children.

“There are far too few child welfare commissioners anywhere in this country that share his courage, strength, integrity and tenacity,” said Marcia Robinson Lowery, executive director of the group Children’s Rights, to the New York Times. “He aimed high and while he may not have hit every goal he set, his aim was dead on.”

I honestly think this agency is so much more professional and the leadership is so much more focused on problem solving than a decade ago,” said Andrew White of the Center for New York City Affairs at the New School, reported the Daily News.

In a  written statement, the mayor said, ”Few people have worked harder and more effectively in such difficult circumstances than he has,” referring to the intense reforms and controversies that have occurred under Mattingly’s watch.

A burdensome legacy. The high-profile death of Nixzmary Brown led to serious criticism of Mattingly and the agency. After the 7-year-old Bed-Stuy girl was starved, tortured and beaten to death by her father, it came to light that two complaints had been made to Child Services about the Brown family prior to Nixzmary’s death. The agency was reportedly overwhelmed with cases at the time, and the media placed much of the blame on Mattingly– as Mattingly himself apparently did . After the case, major changes were made to the way the city handles child welfare cases.

  • The mayor created a new panel to enforce better communication between Child Services and NYPD.

Mattingly was hit with another blow in September, 2010, with the death of 4-year-old Marchella Brett-Pierce. Pierce, who weighed 18 pounds at the time of her death, had been tortured and neglected by her mother. Child Services caseworker Damon Adams had been assigned to the case the previous November, but an investigation revealed that the caseworker had failed to visit the home as much as he was required, and that his supervisor, Chereece Bell, had failed to report Adams’ negligence. Both Adams and Bell were charged with criminally negligent homicide in March, reported AOL News.

A loss of perspective. Richard Wexler, executive director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, said that he believes Mattingly was so personally devastated by these horrific cases, that he lost touch with his role as administrator. ”What Mattingly is responsible for is not the horror stories, but the day to day failures,” Wexler said, according to the Daily News.

On its blog, the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform said, “The John Mattingly who took the job was a visionary, a national leader in pioneering best practices.  But the John Mattingly who leaves the job now let best practice pass him by. He became one of the most regressive forces in American child welfare, and New York’s vulnerable children have suffered for it.” Among many charges that Mattingly overreacted to the Brett-Pierce and Brown cases to the detriment of child welfare and the undeserved break-up of many families, the coalition believes Mattingly’s worst decision was leading a 50 percent increase in removal of children from their homes.

Richter steps in. Before he was a judge, Richter worked as the city’s family services coordinator, helping coordinate meetings between at-risk families and various city agencies, reported the New York Times.

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